Foreign Policy Blogs

Britain's Royal Succession Crisis?

Who's Gets to be the Pilot? – Image Credit: Getty

In honor of today’s royal wedding, I draw to your attention a very interesting article that appeared in one of Canada’s leading newspapers, the Globe and Mail – Britain’s Crisis of Succession: Charles and the Story Behind the Royal Wedding. The article gives us a glimpse into the politics inside the royal family and how some in the family (Prince Charles) are more involved in national politics then is generally understood.  And one surprising possibility: that Charles may never be king as he will be skipped in favor of William.

British papers, and even some parliamentarians, began to discuss openly something that only had been whispered before: the possibility, constitutionally feasible but rare in practice, of “skipping” Charles and passing the line of succession to William. Behind this speculation lay a mounting fear that Charles’s tenure on the throne could ruin the institution unless something dramatic were done.

The article claims that an internal royal committee, the Way Ahead Group, (which includes the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and their private secretaries, as well as Princess Anne and Princes Andrew and Edward) is deeply concerned about the viability of the monarchy in a post-Elizabethan era:

And by the end of 2009, Charles was becoming a serious threat to that future: Even as he was touring Canada, the London media were revealing that in the previous decade he had become a compulsively outspoken political actor, lobbying more than a dozen British cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister, with his infamous “black-spider letters” – so-called because of his distinctive penmanship and his persistence – at least fortnightly, demanding meetings and seeking changes to legislation.

While Elizabeth has remained aloof and non-partisan, Charles’ involvement in the matters of government has become more extensive:

The heir to the throne has spent the past decade transforming himself from the morose face of regal indifference into a powerful businessman, outspoken political activist and aggressive lobbyist. The “black spider” letters and meetings with ministers are only the beginning. Laws that have apparently angered him into action, according to official records, have involved health, education, the national budget, foreign policy and the military; for a lengthy period, he attempted to have the Labour government abolish or radically reduce the powers of its 2000 Human Rights Act. Much of his anger seems to be directed at legislation directly related to his military regiment or his $50-million business empire, which includes nationally marketed and distributed lines of food, “alternative” medicines and housing developments.

Is today’s royal wedding part of a larger effort to ensure that the monarchy survives?

But if Friday’s spectacle is a vastly expensive experiment in image management, it also happens to be a highly risky one. Its aftermath – the crucial months afterward when William takes the public stage as figure recognized around the world, perhaps more than his father – will be watched with careful attention by the other members of the Way Ahead Group, the British government and the leaders of the Commonwealth states.  The worry is not that the wedding won’t succeed. It is that it may prove to be all too successful. What if it draws attention to what is not being said aloud? What if it reveals William to be a plausible constitutional monarch but his father as something else entirely?

The British Parliament would have a role in changing royal succession and there is enough precedent to fall back on.  But such a move would also drawn in the members of the Commonwealth:

However, it is not simply a matter of British opinion: The Queen is the head of state in 15 countries, and the head of the 54-member Commonwealth. To shuffle Charles out of the deck would be a difficult operation: It is a decision that could be made only by the parliaments of the countries where he would be king. And if they were willing to change the monarchy from one of hereditary succession to one of parliamentarily chosen succession, how far would that be from an elected head of state?

What is the Commonwealth? The Independent sums it up nicely:

That depends, both on who is asking and who is answering. Formerly the “British Commonwealth”, the modern version came into being 50 years ago, shedding the British part of its tag and becoming the Commonwealth of Nations. The old club of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa has since swollen to 54 countries, until it lost Zimbabwe, and is expected to return to that number during the coming weekend (Rwanda added).  To its supporters it is a British foreign policy success story that has come to encompass every region, religion and race on the planet, something no other organisation apart from the UN can boast. It enables otherwise isolated and impoverished nations to network with powerful allies and be, in the words of one booster, “a decent club… which confers a sense of identity… no more no less.” While its membership is almost entirely made up of English-speaking former colonies that share a legal system and often a constitutional framework, Britain is no longer dominant in what is a voluntary association.

All of this underscores that the British monarchy (and monarchies in general) is more complex and political than most Americans (including me) understand.  And the Commonwealth is a complex and still relevant international organization (and function of British foreign policy).  When Kate and Will said “I do” today there was a lot more at play than just a couple of lovestruck kids tying the knot.  Let the royal intrigue begin.

William in the Driver's Seat – Image Credit: Getty



James Ketterer
James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement